How to Write an Ode

An Ode is a lyrical poetic form used to celebrate or express strong feelings (or formal praise) for any event, thing, or person NOT present. With its roots in ancient Greece, early odes were formal in structure and rhyme scheme. Of the three types of odes, Pindar, Horace, and Irregular, the latter seems to be the choice of many contemporary poets since it is less restrictive and less formal. However, no matter which ode you choose to write, they should all celebrate the subject with a theatrical song-like approach.  

Here are the rules:

  1. Pick a subject: a thing or a place.
  2. Choose a title  (Ode to Orange)
  3. Give your subject praise or thanks. (Oh, orange so sweet!)
  4. Speak directly to the object.
  5. Be dramatic! Theatrical!
  6. Use verbs to bring that subject to life.
  7. Use vivid adjectives to describe your subject.
  8. Use the repetition (single words or entire lines).

Example #1 Horatian ode: One stanza pattern repeated throughout the poem (the most popular of Odes). 

Ode on Solitude by Alexander Pope 

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,                           
                 In his own ground.  

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade, 
               In winter fire.  

Blest, who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,                            
               Quiet by day,  

Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,                            
               With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone                            
             Tell where I lie.

Example #2 Pindaric ode: Originally performed with chorus and dancers the Pindaric ode has strict rules containing a formal opening, a complex metrical structure, and a final closing section differing from that of the rest of the poem.

Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth poem  (beginning excerpt)

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,      
    The earth, and every common sight                                 
                   To me did seem                         
      Apparelled in celestial light,      
  The glory and the freshness of a dream.      
  It is not now as it hath been of yore;—                           
             Turn wheresoe'er I may,                             
                 By night or day,      
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Example #3 Irregular ode: Here, the formal rules of structure and rhyme scheme are abandoned and left up to the poet although the tradition of the ode remains intact with a celebratory, theatrical song of praise.

Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats 

 Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
         To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
         And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
         Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
                Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
         Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
                Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
         "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."